The Big Read Blog (Archive)

What If They Held a Big Read and Nobody Came?

January 28, 2008
Auburn, Indiana

What if they held a Big Read and nobody came? I never expected to be asking myself that question when I reset my watch to match the dashboard clock in my rented PT Cruiser outside the Ft. Wayne, Indiana, airport. I'd had only the highest hopes as I tooled up the highway to Auburn, site of the first Big Read I'd ever attended for The Call of the Wild, Jack London's indestructible story of the stouthearted sled dog Buck. Terra Firma, the education initiative of the DeKalb County Community Foundation, had pulled together a strong application. A nearby radio station was slated to cover the 1 p.m. kickoff festivities at the Eckhart Park Pavilion. The local constabulary was sending out their K-9 Unit. Stacks of mass-market paperback copies reposed on a card table by the door.

But there at the stroke of one stood TerraFirma director Judy Sorg, spruce in her January-weight jacket under the unheated pavilion's drafty rafters, surveying a turnout consisting of two co-organizers -- one of whom was turning around to leave. Worse, Judy seemed oblivious to the whole debacle. Was she deluded? One of those blithe Pollyannas whose façade of chipper optimism never permits a crack?

She'd seemed normal enough, even engaging, when I met her in Minneapolis at orientation in November. Then again, I was hardly one to talk. Here I was, about to preside over my first clunker after two years of unfailingly innovative local celebrations of American literature, and I was playing along, humoring poor Judy in her desperate charade.

I forget how exactly I realized that the PT Cruiser's clock had been off by an hour. But you could safely color me relieved -- maybe a bluish shade of relieved, since warm for Auburn can nevertheless feel a tad nippy to a fugitive Californian. Suffice to say that an hour later, all 151 souls allowed by the fire marshal, and perhaps a couple extra, had warmed matters up considerably. There were dog-safety demonstrations for kids, dog-sled demonstrations for would-be mushers, and a fascinating talk from Gail, the wolf expert at nearby Wolf Park, whose lupine howls had canines fooled for versts around.

The kickoff hosted at least the allowable 151 Auburnians; several live, stuffed and balloon animals; and one sociable 6-foot plush mascot frog, who probably qualifies as both. Photo by David Kipen.

Kids abounded, painting soup bowls and each other, nervously eyeing dogs up for adoption and parents who might or might not be. Each clutched a newly bestowed copy of The Call of the Wild in one hand and a Klondike bar in the other, unsure which to devour first.

Later, chowing down on cheese curds and other delicacies indigenous but far from indigestible, I congratulated Judy, her husband David (soon to appear in a much-anticipated local production of Much Ado About Nothing), Gail the uber-zoologist of the Midwest, Wendy Oberlin of the community foundation, and so many delightful others I'd rather omit here than misspell. As Buck and his teammates in the traces could have told you, it's amazing what you can pull together when you pull together.